On Thursday May 24, I visited Semliki national park found in the districts of Bundibugyo, Kabarole and Ntoroko in Western Uganda.
This is the place for the stone-hearted!
The road cut on the edges of the Mountain Rwenzori ranges that runs from Kabarole and all through to Kasese will leave your heart in your mouth. You tremble as the driver, going at just 30kph, negotiates hairpin bends. For the tourists, this is beautiful scenery, nonetheless; especially the lush, green valleys and fresh air.
To the faint-hearted, you will put your last prayers on auto-repeat, even naming the beneficiaries of your estate including sending your mobile money and ATM PINs to your next of kin; it is hair-raising, despite the road being all tarmac now.
Some of those I was traveling with audibly held their breaths until the bends were done with. When we were finally out of 'danger' and they could afford to mutter a word, it was to wonder how much government had spent on tarmacking this hell of a road.
"Cutting through this rock is not a joke," one said.
But another was quick to contradict: "By the way, road construction companies like these places because they reduce on their costs as they don't need to buy [stones]." Well, of the two, I did not know whom to believe.
Soon we were in the national park, Semliki, on the floor of this western rift valley. It is part of the Kibale conservation area, spanning from Kyegegwa to Bundibugyo districts. This 220 square kilometer semi-tropical forest park that borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, is known for its rampant Albertine rift birds.
Of the 1,041 bird species that have been recorded in Uganda, 450 are found in Semliki. Other than the birds, the park also has a host of other animals, butterflies, grasshoppers, name it.
Owing to our late arrival at the park, we were unable to go birding, but I was able to visit the male and female hot springs famous from most secondary school geography lessons. They are indeed a wonder!
Very hot water at about 97 degrees Celsius; oozing out of the earth surface brought back memories of geography, tectonic plates and activity.
We were told the water is usually hotter than we found it, sometimes going up to 103 degrees Celsius. But whose report do you want to believe when it comes to why this water is this hot; geography, God or African folklore?
Geographers say hot springs are formed when rain and snow seep below the earth's surface as ground water, until hitting solid rocks and collecting in pools or aquifers. Magma heats this water, which then rises back up to the surface through cracks in the earth's crust called vents, hence forming a hot spring.
Religious people are convinced that hot springs are simply part of the greatness of God's creations. God just willed that, let there be a hot spring and there it was!
On the other hand, the Bamaga people of Bundibugyo, Kabarole and Ntoroko believe the springs are home to their ancestors. They are the ones who gave these springs sexes; calling the female one Nyasimbi and the male Bitete.
Legend has it that Bitete, their ancestor, got swallowed up at this spot after he went missing. This is because it is here that they found his dog, spear and bark cloth. Shortly after him getting lost, even his wife Nyasimbi disappeared and her personal effects too were found near the now female hot springs.
Actually to-date, the Bamaga still visit these places where they even have a shrine for sacrifice and petition against all sorts of things ranging from diseases, to luck and barrenness.
Back to science, Harriet Nakyesa, a guide, said the water of the hot springs contains high quantities of minerals such as iron, zinc, sulphur and magnesium among others, which are highly medicinal.
She said the difference between a male and female hot spring is that the latter is cracked and therefore water comes out in a zigzag manner, sprouting with a much higher velocity while the male hot spring has larger vents that allows water to gush out of the surface though not at a high velocity.
The female hot springs is where saucepans are found. It is here that all sorts of food items are cooked. For example eggs, the commonly boiled item, are ready after 10 minutes; matoke and Irish potatoes take 25 to 30 minutes to cook, while meat takes one hour.
My hungry group that had spent the whole day without eating thanks to the tight schedule, were able to help themselves to eggs, matoke and potatoes cooked in the springs.
Visiting the Park
Unlike the case with other parks and protected areas, Semliki national park is most popular to Ugandans, especially students - thanks to Nyasimbi and Bitete.
In fact on the day we visited, we found at least two buses that had brought students on a geography tour of the hot springs.
According to Leslie Muhindo, the assistant guide in charge of tourism at the park, 500 to 600 students visit every month. In August 2015 they recorded the highest number of students visiting at 2,900 in one month.
"Eighty-five per cent of our visitors are Ugandans; it seems this park is not yet popular with foreigners - maybe they don't know about it," Muhindo said.
Students are charged Shs 1,500 as park entry and Shs 10,000 for every six students for nature walks including visiting the hot springs.
Adults, on the other hand, are charged Shs 15,000 as park entry fees and Shs 10,000 for nature walks in the park. For foreigners who are not Ugandan residents, it costs $50, while $40 is charged to foreigners who are resident in Uganda.
"We encourage our people to come and visit these places. We are conserving them for them; so, they should enjoy them," Muhindo said.